Regrettably for the United States, but more tragically for the people of Afghanistan, history is repeating itself.
When a great power commits to defending an ally, it assumes a moral obligation of faithful stewardship. If the great power fails, it may not in good conscience simply abandon those who stood by its side, placing their lives and futures at risk in reliance on the good faith of their protector.
Yet abandoning those who trusted in us is exactly what the U.S. did at the end of the Vietnam War — and what it is now doing to the Afghans.
Last week, President Joe Biden indignantly denied any comparison, telling reporters who suggested one that the Taliban insurgency is not "the North Vietnamese army. ... There's going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of [an] embassy ... of the United States from Afghanistan. It is not at all comparable."
This claim deserves closer examination.
In October 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower made a commitment to the people of South Vietnam to assist them in defending their country against conquest by the communist government in North Vietnam. Undeterred, Hanoi launched a campaign of violence in 1959, supporting the insurgency of a subsidiary known as the Viet Cong, and in 1965 sending its regular army into South Vietnam.
The U.S. responded. President John Kennedy sent military advisers and special forces, President Lyndon Johnson sent ground troops and began bombing North Vietnam to reduce the flow of men and supplies into South Vietnam. By 1968 over 500,000 Americans were fighting in South Vietnam.
After major attacks across South Vietnam during the 1968 Tet holiday, Johnson began peace talks with Hanoi and capped the American force commitment. In 1969 President Richard Nixon began a program of "Vietnamization" whereby American military forces would gradually turn the fighting completely over to the South Vietnamese.
Vietnamization was a success. The Viet Cong were defeated by a village-based South Vietnamese counterinsurgency and development program with U.S. support.
A peace agreement was signed in January 1973 after all American forces had left. Hanoi's army remained in South Vietnam. In 1975 Hanoi violated its peace agreement and defeated its nationalist rivals.
In the aftermath, the U.S. gave refuge only to some 130,000 South Vietnamese nationalists out of so many who had opposed Communist tyranny — some 750,000 South Vietnamese soldiers (not including their families) and over 2 million teachers, village leaders, intellectuals, policemen, self-defense volunteers, civil servants and religious leaders (also not including their families).
After their victory, the Communists sent over 200,000 of its political opponents to concentration camps for "re-education." Some were there for 12 years of punishment for having followed their consciences.
In the late 1960s, I had been deployed to the CORDS counterinsurgency and village development program in South Vietnam. In 1975, I joined former CORDS colleagues and others in Washington to press to get a refugee resettlement approved and executed.
This effort was successful. With support from the staff of Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass, a parole program was approved to admit Vietnamese nationalists to the U.S. There was then no refugee act. Kennedy's position, as I remember, was that the U.S. could take in as many Vietnamese nationalists as it had taken refugees from Castro's Cuba, some 150,000 persons.
One of the most generous states in quickly providing sponsorships for the Vietnamese refugees was Minnesota.
Meanwhile, as the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia and Communists took over the government of Laos, I later was told, the U.S. took out 17 families from Cambodia leaving the rest for the "killing fields" (a holocaust in which some 1.5 million were killed) and we accepted only a handful of Hmong leaders from Laos.
In 1978 the "boat people" started to flee Vietnam. I again became involved, this time as a member of the Citizens Commission for Indochinese Refugees, in petitioning the Carter Administration to admit more survivors of communism from all the countries of the former Indochina.
With support from Vice President Walter Mondale, we were successful. The U.S. stepped up with the Refugee Act of 1980, under which many more Vietnamese, Khmer, Hmong and Lao were admitted to this country.
Our war in Afghanistan began after the 9/11 attacks, when the U.S. sent forces to Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban government because it had given sanctuary to Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda organization. Then, partnering with Afghans opposed to the Taliban, the U.S. with NATO allies committed to supporting an elected government in Kabul and so preventing the Taliban from ever again imposing its religious fanaticism on all Afghans.
For 19 years that government with its foreign allies has struggled to defeat the Taliban insurgency. With sanctuaries in Pakistan, remote and secure mountain bases, and mobilization of supporters in rural villages, the Taliban has fought on and on, never taking large towns or cities but constantly killing opponents.
In 2018 the U.S. began negotiations with the Taliban. In 2020 a draft agreement was signed by the U.S. and the Taliban. The Taliban refused to sign any agreement with the Kabul government. Promised serious and meaningful negotiations between the Taliban and the Kabul government never came to pass as the Taliban and other Islamist insurgent factions continued their terror attacks on other Afghans.
On April 14, President Joe Biden threw in the towel on America's longest war. He ordered the complete withdrawal of American forces.
Last week, in a reprise of Richard Nixon's "Vietnamization" program, Biden declared: "We did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build. And it's the right and the responsibility of the Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country."
So here we are today, about to lose another war, and again there is no plan in Washington to uphold our country's honor, just vague assurances that we will provide refuge to those who are in danger because they aided America.
It is again despicable that a great power, especially one dedicated to human rights, would turn its back on those who depended on its good faith and its perseverance.
There is another disgraceful parallel between our past failure in Vietnam and our current failure in Afghanistan. I have recently found a report by former Soviet Ambassador to Washington Anatoly Dobrynin to his superiors in Moscow recounting Dobrynin's meeting with National Security Adviser (later Secretary of State) Henry Kissinger on Jan 9, 1971. What Dobrynin reported is not yet known by the American people.
In that meeting, Kissinger, without authorization from President Nixon or the National Security Council – turned his back on the South Vietnamese. He suggested that if the Vietnamese Communists would just save American honor by signing a peace agreement, they could leave their divisions inside South Vietnam and conquer that independent country after a "decent interval" of a couple of years passed after the peace agreement was signed.
In 1971 Kissinger did not tell President Nixon of this concession. Nor did he inform his ally President Thieu of South Vietnam of what he had done. When Nixon and Thieu learned the truth in October 1972, it was too late for them to change the terms of the peace agreement which Kissinger had negotiated behind their backs. A peace agreement was signed in January 1973.
American forces returned home; the Communists kept their word to Kissinger and waited two more years before moving in for the kill. As they swarmed South Vietnam's cities, President Gerald Ford and Kissinger did nothing. Saving some of the Vietnamese whose cause had been betrayed was left to young, volunteer Foreign Service officers willing to badger and cajole their superiors into doing the right and honorable thing.
Inevitably, Kissinger's "decent interval" template also has been deployed by our negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad in Afghanistan. As reported in 2020 by the Center for Preventive Action on the website of the Council on Foreign Relations, Khalilzad, like Kissinger, conducted negotiations with the enemy of our Afghan allies without letting those allies participate directly in the talks. But, worse than Kissinger, he failed even to get a piece of paper promising our allies any protections or rights. He obtained only two separate statements, one with the Taliban and another with the Kabul government, neither of which provided for an end to the fighting or for agreement on who should govern Afghanistan. The agreements contained only vague promises of negotiations.
Like the Vietnamese Communists, the Taliban have chosen continued war, seeking ultimate conquest of their enemies, who thought a great power would defend their legitimate aspirations.
Stephen B. Young, of St. Paul, was chief, Village Development Branch, Civil Operations and Rural Development Support, Republic of Vietnam. He was a member of the Citizens Commission for Indochinese Refugees. He is author of "The Theory and Practice of Associative Power: CORDS in the Villages of Vietnam 1967-1972."